JAMTSO, MY TOUR GUIDE in Bhutan, was scheduled to show us a famous Buddha statue. But under lockdown restrictions, he instead gave us a tour of his colorful wood-beamed house, where his wife, Gyelmo, showed us how to cook a popular Bhutanese dish (lots of hot peppers!).
He also introduced us to his mother. As many Bhutanese people do every day, she was praying for peace for all the world’s sentient beings. One of my travel companions said, “Thank you! We need it,” and I agreed. It’s comforting to know someone in Bhutan is praying for my well-being.
I wasn’t really in Bhutan, of course. I was on a videoconference from halfway around the world.
I joined the tour via tenLocals, a new venture that charges participants a small fee for a live virtual experience with a faraway guide. Part of the fee goes to the guide, and part of it goes to making sure the technology will work — not an easy task in many parts of the world, founder Igor Petrushyn told me from his home in the Boston area.
As one who loves nothing more than getting the feel of a new place, I was skeptical about the benefits of online tourism. But it fulfills some of my favorite things about travel: learning new things, getting a sense of history — and even, in a way, meeting new people.
Some folks have joined Petrushyn for five or six trips by now. “They’re almost like our friends,” he said.
For tour guides — whose livelihoods have been decimated — as well as would-be tourists, online tours provide a kind of satisfaction you don’t get from just watching a video. Hosts, guides and “travelers” comment and ask questions during the discussion.
Regina Winkle-Bryan started her Seattle-based travel business, Bold Spirit Travel, last December. She had to cancel her first tours, which would have led small groups of women around Italy and Spain.
Now, her on-the-ground guides in Europe give virtual tours, and she hosts a twice-monthly travel-themed book club. Both draw regulars. Participants can tip via electronic platforms.
Fostering friendships was always part of Winkle-Bryan’s plan: “The idea is that you get a smaller group of women who get to know each other and get to know the guide.” It’s still happening, just not in person for now.
I attended a Bold Spirit “virtual visit” where Mary Jane Cuyler discussed Roman ruins at Ostia, Italy, where she’s field director of excavations at an unearthed synagogue. I was surprised at how much her words and images brought back some of the familiar thrill of being in a new place.
Sarah Murdoch, along with many of her colleagues, was laid off this spring from her job as a tour guide for Rick Steves’ Europe. As guides in their tight network commiserated over their financial and other losses, Murdoch started thinking, “What if we focus on the wealth of knowledge and the community that we have?” Making the most of her significant social-media following and collaborating with other guides, she launched Guide Collective. They’re filling their calendar with a mix of paid and free online live programming. A virtual Cotswolds tour, for example, includes a recipe for scones so participants can enjoy teatime together (but separately).
Virtual travel brings some unexpected benefits.
For one thing, it opens up travel to people who normally couldn’t afford it or who have physical limitations. “There are so many negatives that have come out of COVID, but that was one of the positives,” Winkle-Bryan said.
Guides and their hosts are hoping to keep virtual tours going even after normal travel resumes. “It’s really enriched my view of what travel can be,” Murdoch said. “Everyone thinks this is the end of the travel industry. I think no; this is the beginning of something new.”